Photographer, artist and nature enthusiast Steve Ellwood is a longtime resident of coastal South Carolina. For more than 20 years he has walked the beaches, tidal marshes and rural wetlands of South Carolina and Florida, taking tens of thousands of photos. Each photo in this book is a culmination of that work, showcasing the intimate lives of an avian species, all taken In The Moment of his personal journeys. From tiny Hummingbirds to wading Egrets and majestic raptors, Steve captures those special scenes that stir the soul, beckoning you to sit back and enjoy these, his most treasured photographs.
Cattle Egret are rare in our tidal marshes – as are cattle. These unlikely partners usually hang out together around inland livestock pastures. The cattle attract and stir up insects, creating an attractive feeding ground. If you ever see a big white bird on the back of a cow, it’s not just hitching a free ride. It’s attending a buffet on the hoof while providing relief to the fly-swatting cow. Symbiosis 101.
In my 20 years of prowling Huntington Beach State Park in Georgetown County, SC, I’d never seen one of these golden-coiffed Egret standing in or near the water. In fact, I’d only seen two in all those years, both on the wing. So, when I first saw this bird from a distance, I automatically assumed it was a Snowy Egret, which are common around here. But as I approached quietly and my view improved, the scene resolved into a surprising potential prize, a once-in-decades payoff for my years of persistence and patience. I was captivated by the wonder and reality of the moment. Now for the shot!
My lightweight water-resistant camo jacket and pants are perfect for shooting in soggy conditions. They keep my clothing dry when I nestle into the marshy ground on days like this. My Cattle Egret looked hungry. I watched as he made his way to a fresh pool of rainwater. A small frog swimming nearby commanded its attention. As I set up at a comfortable distance, the bird edged into the water, ever so slowly and deliberately, in a predator’s stealth mode, target acquired. Its colorful reflection shone on the glassy water, catching my eye. I shifted position, just high enough to include the mirror-image in my shot. Dappling light spilled through the trees as the Egret advanced in and out of the shadows. I was captivated by its laser-like stare, the disciplined patience of the hunt. When the Egret struck, its flashing skill caught me (and the frog!) by surprise. Meal acquired, he flew off toward more familiar pastures. I laid in place, savoring that long awaited encounter.
A Black Skimmer by any other name would be, well, just plain wrong. One of nature’s most perfect designs, they glide with seeming effortlessness over still waters fishing by touch for small fish lazing just below the surface. Any contact with the bird’s lower mandible triggers a snap! Which produces in-flight meals, and the Black Skimmer skims on.
It was a late November morning, about 8 am, and a crisp 60 degrees when I arrived at one of my favorite hometown haunts, Huntington Beach State Park in Georgetown County, tucked in the marshlands of northeastern South Carolina. I’d never seen a Skimmer this late in the season, and I never have since. But here were, not one, but two young birds strafing the pond, back and forth, criss and cross.
Photographing Black Skimmers is a waiting game so I focused on one bird and shot for about 45 minutes, yielding some 50 skimming shots, all from profile or approaching angles. It’s unusual for Skimmers to stay so long in one place, so I expected this one to depart at any minute, game over.
Then the bird glided past me, heading away toward the far side of the pond, made a hard right turn, and flew straight back at me! I knelt a bit lower, focused, refocused, and shot almost continuously as it approached. I kept waiting for the Skimmer to bank, but it just kept on coming head on! The water was so calm it made a perfect, mirror-like reflection. I photographed that last remaining Skimmer until the bird flew off over the salt marsh, toward the Inlet.
I had been trying for years to make this photograph, imagining it, framing the image, seeing the bird’s headlong approach in my mind’s eye. And then, like a vision realized, it all came together this cool Autumn day, on the last pass of the season.
She was playing hard to get. He’d come prepared with the catch of the day. And then, quite literally out of the blue, this other guy just showed up with an offering too, and before you could say fresh fish, a Tango for two turned into a Royal Tern tit-for-tat – with her eyeing the meal more than the men.
Fort De Soto Park is one of my favorite stops along the Florida gulf coast, just south of St. Petersburg. I had arrived about 6 am, two hours before this shot, on the falling tide, when shore birds are more active in the shallows. Things really ramp up in the spring during mating season. Frantic courtship activity abounds, ranging from dramatic squabbles to comedic dance, depending on your view of these hot dates on the beach.
In the case of these three, things started normally enough, just the two of them, until a rival male dropped right in between with a distracting bit of bait. Well, the original suitor was having none of that, shoved back between the intruder and her highness, flared those broad wings, and started strutting his stuff. You can almost see the look of panicked dismay in the other guy’s expression. But what was clearly a conflict appeared at this click of the shutter to be a joyful chorus line. Courtship can be funny like that. In the end, the intruder was sent on his way, and the original couple carried on.
I knew the shake was coming. It’s a trademark trait of a soaked Osprey, after diving at up to 50 miles per hour, feet first, talons extended, to strike through the water’s surface with explosive power and skill, often emerging triumphant, fish in foot, feathers dripping from tail to chin. The struggle to get bird and prey airborne is an aeronautical spectacle I never tire of seeing. The whole-body shake sheds excess water weight, aiding the Osprey in its deep-flapping takeoff – sometimes with a fish that looks too big to carry – before winging inland to find private dining space on an upper branch of a Longleaf Pine.
I’ve photographed thousands of mornings year-round over the past 20 years from The Causeway at Huntington Beach State Park in Georgetown County, SC. It’s where I first got hooked on photographing birds in flight, camera and lens in hand, scanning the sky above the surrounding marsh and waters.
On this bright, cool morning in November 2017, four Ospreys circled above the pond. I watched and waited for one bird to circle lower, knowing from experience that it was zeroing in on a potential payoff. I started shooting when the bird began its dive and continued through its blazing impact with the water. After it emerged, I paused, waiting for the classic Osprey “shake.” Knowing it’ll be over in a flash is critical to getting the timing right.
Everything came together for this photo. The late-year angled light was perfect, illuminating each airborne water droplet. The fish was sharply visible, grasped tight in a single talon. And the background was dark enough to create that visual pop! – often lost in a blue sky of wind and water. I took over 70 shots of this Osprey that morning, and he caught a meal. We both came away with a keeper.
They dart, they spin and sprint around, chasing small fish, at times with wings extended in seeming delight, clowning around, like that friend we all know who thoroughly enjoys making everyone laugh.
The Reddish Egret can be found throughout the Florida coast in shallow lagoons, mangroves, or along the beaches. They’re the great entertainers of the wetlands, by far the most animated of the heron family. Their fishing style can best be described as chaotic and comical.
I spotted this bird in the early evening in Little Estero Lagoon near Ft. Myers, just off the beach. I set up on a slightly elevated sand ledge nearby and settled in for the show, expecting a great performance. This bird did not dissappoint. When the Egret ran straight toward me, I laughed at that red mane, all flared out and cocky, as he jauntily high-stepped through the rising tide. At times, he ran and spun around with no attempt at fishing. I’ve seen this many times with Reddish Egret. There’s no other explanation than that they thoroughly enjoy moving in the way only they can. At times it’s ballet, and at other times it’s more like an intoxicated water tango. It was a great evening of shooting. The Egret had dinner and I caught a show.
Sometimes the stars just fall into perfect alignment. Or waddle into place, as the stars of this shot did. Then, appearing wise beyond their days but still cozily tufted in owlet fluff, they all looked my way for just that one still moment, and I grinned to myself, How about that!
Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy, never is. Which is perfectly OK. For me, the enjoyment is in the peace of the hunt, the quiet anticipation, the unfolding scenes beyond my keenest imagination.
Vista View Park lies just west of Jacksonville, FL, built on a landfill, which explains the 272 acres of rolling hills in an otherwise flat-as-Florida landscape. I time my visits to coincide, as best that can be done, with the emergence of Burrowing Owlets. After four weeks of being fed and protected, safe underground in burrows their parents dug (or inherited from small prey such as ground squirrels), they one day venture forth. If I’m fortunate, I get to see that happen, closeup and in person.
I arrived at 5pm, about an hour before this shot, at a location with marked conservation burrows. There’s no way to be sure of young birds below – much less Owlets of an age to breach the grassy meadow above. I distanced myself from the burrow, inching my ground pod forward. Adult birds stood nearby, showing no signs of stress, so I photographed them for about 15 minutes. Then as the light flattened, almost on cue, a tiny head poked up from below…then another…and yet another. The silent siblings gathered in family fashion. Nothing could be better, until – just as I started shooting – a fourth little one popped out and sat perfectly to the right of the others. All were comfortable, looking about, paying little attention to me, lying at their level, still as a stone. Waiting. Shooting. And waiting still more. Then, the moment revealed itself. One by one, the Owlets swiveled to face me, unblinking in the gathering sunset. One, two, three – four! It was that unexpected accident when, kids being kids and glancing all about, a calm descends, and the picture is suddenly complete. You know, like that family photo of everyone with their eyes open - a happy miracle when it happens.
When I first heard the news that Steve Ellwood’s truly inspired avian photography was going to be compiled into a book, I was thrilled. Thrilled mostly because more people would have the opportunity to share the emotions that Steve’s work invokes. Wonderment and joy are just a couple of the “feels” I get when seeing his work. His love of nature is evident in the images that he is able to capture. To truly experience the fullness of beauty in the natural world, you have to be patient. In our busy lives, Steve is patient for us. He gets the shot we wouldn’t sit still long enough to see. At Brookgreen Gardens, we invite people to slow down to enjoy nature and art. We are so glad that Steve chooses to spend some of his time here, and that he is able to capture some of our wild guests enjoying the Gardens as well.
Lauren Joseph, Director of Marketing, Brookgreen Gardens
As a nature photography fanatic, I always enjoy seeing photos of our beautiful coastal region. On some occasions, however, I’ll see one so captivating that it actually strikes an emotional response. Many of those times, it will be a photo by Steve Ellwood. Steve’s talents go far beyond his incredible technical abilities, which are impressive on their own. He has a gift of capturing “the moment” and the raw emotion and intensity of the scene before him, as is so well displayed this amazing collection! We can’t put this book down.
Ed Piotrowski, Chief Meteorologist WPDE
In 2010 I moved to South Carolina and soon thereafter met Steve Ellwood at Huntington Beach State Park. Steve shared some of his photographs with me and I was very impressed by his work. He has a special talent that allows him to capture birds doing what birds do all the time but making them look so special. I am very happy Steve has decided to share his talents and beautiful “in the moment” images for all to see and enjoy. If you are a bird lover or simply enjoy great photography, I’m sure you will be inspired by this photographic journal.
Roger K. Doyle, Co-coordinator Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association, Myrtle Beach Region